The Handmaid's Tale Witness Review

The Handmaid’s Tale has been teasing revolution. Ever since June had her epiphany that she can save other Gilead children even if she can’t save her own daughters, the narrative has been injected with a dose of intrigue, though not much else happens in “Witness” other than one disconcerting scene of sexual violation (we’ll get to that). 

Unfortunately, the DC-ascended Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is back on his bullshit. During an inspection, he offers June to re-serve the Waterfold household in DC. A promotion, he calls it (does getting your mouth sewn shut like other Handmaids in DC count as a promotion?). His hold on his district has increased, to the point where the custom-evasive Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) acquiesces to Waterford’s orders to upgrade his wallpaper to “DC standard.”

Seeking to possess June once again, Commander Fred Waterford closes in on the Lawrences’ household. He cites that the Lawrence household hasn’t produced any children for Gilead yet (because Lawrence secretly isn’t a rapist). Fred stipulates to Commander Winslow (an amiable and unsettling Christopher Meloni) that they must ensure that Joseph proves his virility to Gilead and that he’s keeping his household in order. 

The Lawrences

Whitford commands every scene he’s in, but Julie Dretzin as Eleanor Lawrence steals a few when she’s animatedly wandering in the foreground or background and musing about lost knick-knacks and lost in her own world. Eleanor leads June to files of Gilead’s stolen children in her household basement. June suggests that Eleanor and Joseph can ditch Gilead together so Eleanor can receive proper bipolar disorder medication and be done with a totalitarian society. Eleanor responds that Joseph would be tried as a war criminal if he were to ever cross the Canadian border. “He would be jailed for the rest of his life – or killed. And he would deserve it.”

Eleanor’s reaction to the idea of her husband escaping to Canada is a fascinating one, especially when comparing her to the Wives who support their Commander husbands’ persecution of others. She grasps the graveness of Joseph’s war crimes – his creation of the deadly Colonies and his career of picking and choosing who lives or dies in Gilead – no matter how much she loves Joseph. She doesn’t even mind the idea of criminal retribution for her husband, herself included. Eleanor emerges as a multifaceted supporting player. Her breakdowns and outbursts are an expressive strength in a society that can punish her for not behaving acceptably and she embraces the idea of maximum retribution for husband. 

Her husband’s protectiveness is possessiveness, as he lies to himself that he’s keeping her safe from Gilead rather than admitting he’s keeping her in his pressure cooker. However, privilege won’t protect him and Eleanor for long.

The Waterfords Coerce the Lawrences

Gilead is really good at invasive procedures with congenial fronts. The Waterfords, Commander Winslow, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), and doctors drop by the Lawrence’s household to ensure the Lawrences have a Ceremony, the Gilead-enforced rape ritual. They don’t join the Lawrence couple and June behind closed doors, but coercion pervades the atmosphere once June and the Lawrences are in the bedroom. They can’t wait it out behind closed bedroom doors with doctors on standby to examine June. They will all be hanging on the wall if Gilead discovers the Lawrences never performed the Ceremony. It’s a disgusting situation.

Although this is perhaps the only Ceremony June has a sense of control over, even one she can take charge of, Gilead’s coercive air is more than brutal enough, particularly for poor Eleanor’s mental state. Privilege won’t protect Joseph this time. June coaches Joseph on how to numb himself for the Ceremony: “You’re not you. You’re not me.” 

Luckily, a cut to the aftermath spares the audience from the act. Joseph’s process of the event sums up as “now it’s become a real problem to me, so I’ll really do something about it for the people around me.” He decides to provide a truck for June to take Eleanor safely to Canada. June calculatedly convinces him that he could have safe passage into Canada too as long as he takes stolen kids with him, so he’ll be a hero and atoner to Canadian society.

Serena Joy Accelerates Her Plan to Steal Back a Baby

Serena Joy calls out her Commander husband for stalling on retrieving baby Holly (“Nichole,” Serena calls this child she had stolen from June before) from Canada for political gain. She is set on bringing her (ahem, June’s) baby back to her arms in Gilead. And she’s using her American contact Mark Tuello, who previously offered Serena an escape from Gilead, to do so. It’s implied she could blackmail her husband about her secret meeting with the baby in America. She wants Fred to cooperate with Tuello to do so. If Fred does this on his Wife’s terms, time will tell how much this could risk his Commander standing.

The Mayday Rebellion Reawakens to Save Children

While Serena Joy is plotting to re-prison a child to her arms, June is freeing other children. With the intel about stolen children, June also plants more rebellious seeds in her fellow Handmaids, Alma (Nina Kiri) and Janine (Madeline Brewer). Though June also unfortunately has to fib to Janine that her son Caleb is still alive and relocated since the latter was killed in a car accident.

Quite conveniently, especially compared to the time June botched one mission to move a Martha, things go well for June. The Marthas send coded messages through bounties of muffins: Yes, they will help June move children, lots of children that might not fit one truck. At the sight of muffins, June utters a referential final line that is glorious, stake-setting, as cutting as the show’s eccentric music choices: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Tidbits

  • Blink and you miss it: Rita (Amanda Brugel) walks out of the background when Fred Waterford and Commander Winslow talk about their suspicions about the Lawrences. She likely relayed the message to Lawrences’ Marthas to ready themselves.
  • The way Whitford both half-heartedly and bemusedly delivers “I’ll be a hero” is less of a “eureka” and more of an “oh, me, a war criminal can play a good guy” that feels resigned yet flirting with the idea of him playing the noble person.
  • “No, I’m not fucking okay.” Hahaha, who is in Gilead?
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